Default (2018) ☆☆☆ (3/4): A broad look into the South Korean financial crisis in 1997

South Korean film “Default” intends to give us a broad look into the South Korean financial crisis in 1997, and it did a fairly good job despite its several weak elements. While occasionally hampered by its rather heavy-handed storytelling and thin characterization, the movie engaged me and other audiences around me nonetheless thanks to its timely subject and some strong dramatic moments, and I came to reflect on how things were quite bad for millions of people in South Korea at that time, while also worrying about the increasingly unstable status of the South Korean economy at present.

The movie consists of three main storylines, and the most important one involves with Han Shi-hyeon (Kim Hyeo-soo), a senior financial analyst of the Bank of Korea who has been well aware of an imminent financial crisis for months. When her direct boss finally comes to read her latest report on this matter in November 1997, he is certainly shocked to realize what is going to happen sooner or later, and he immediately calls other high-ranking government officials. As they seriously discuss about how to handle this emergent situation, Han argues for the necessity of public announcement, but her argument is callously dismissed by her direct boss and others including the Vice Minister of Finance, who is broadly and despicably played by Jo Woo-jin without any mustache to twirl.

Meanwhile, Yun Jeong-hak (Yoo Ah-in), a young, ambitious guy working in some prominent investment bank, happens to spot the approaching crisis while checking financial data, and then he decides to try what will be the biggest gamble in his life. After promptly quitting his job, he gathers a group of potential investors, and he gives them (and us) a crash course on how the South Korean economy will collapse due to excessive bank loans – and how that crisis will be a big investment chance of lifetime. Although most of his potential customers simply disregard his pitch, two of them approach to Yun later, and they and Yun soon embark on their risky investment operation.

The movie also focuses on Gab-su (Heo Joon-ho), an ordinary working-class guy who has run a small factory for years. While his business has not been that good recently, Gab-su and his business partner recently get a big contract from some major company, and, though he pauses for a while before signing the contract obliging him to pay a considerable amount of cash within a short period, he hopes that everything will get better for him and others including his dear family.

In the end, the South Korean government has no choice but to recognize the crisis in public as the financial market begins to crash down with the massive withdrawal of foreign investment. Unable to pay their debts, many small and big companies become bankrupt within a few days, and there are a number of devastating moments which vividly show us how hard the South Korean society was struck by this sudden economic disaster at that time.

Watching how the situation gets worse day by day, Yun and his investors cannot help but excited about that, but they are also nervous about the remaining possibility of losing their money. For the success of their opportunistic plan, the South Korean government must request a bailout from International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Yun believes that will certainly happen, but he has some doubt just like his investors.

As I and other audiences around me already know well, the South Korean government does not disappoint him at all. In spite of Han’s argument against the bailout from IMF, her direct boss and other high-ranking government officials commence the negotiation with IMF as planned by the Vice President of Finance in advance. The Managing Director of IMF, played by Vincent Cassel with chilly detachment, demands lots of difficult conditions from the beginning, and Han tries her best to stop the negotiation and find any other possible way out for the South Korean government, but she and her colleagues only get more frustrated as their effort is silenced by not only the government and but also the media, which willingly goes along with the government while glossing over the real cause of the crisis.

Although the movie stumbles due to several contrived melodramatic scenes later in the story, the screenplay by Eom Seong-min mostly succeeds in holding our attention amid multiple storylines and numerous details. I must confess that I do not wholly grasp everything presented in the film, but I was seldom bored as the movie busily handled its drama and information, and its narrative pacing is maintained well under director Choi Kook-hee’s plain but competent direction.

The main performers in the movie fill their respective roles as demanded. While Kim Hye-soo gives a strong performance as a stubborn professional woman who struggles to do the right thing as coping with many obstacles including bureaucracy and misogyny, Jo Woo-jin and Vincent Cassel are effective as the villains of the story, and Heo Joon-ho is also fine in his earnest acting. In case of Yoo Ah-in, he is unfortunately distracting while clumsily chewing his every moment in the film as he previously did in “Veteran” (2015), and you may miss his relatively restrained performance in “Burning” (2018).

Although I must point out that “The Big Short” (2015), which “Default” clearly tries to emulate, handles its similar subject with more wit, energy, and intelligence in comparison, “Default” works as well as intended considering what I observed from audiences as I walked out of the screening room after the movie was over, so I recommend it with some reservation. Yes, it is not entirely without flaws, but it delivers its message well to its audiences anyway at least.

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